Bell, union reach new contract Region-wide pact set

local talks continue

January 13, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Bell Atlantic Corp. and its largest union reached a tentative agreement on a new contract yesterday morning, ending a bitter stalemate that stretched more than five months past the expiration of their last agreement.

The Philadelphia -based phone company and the Communications Workers of America, which represents about 35,000 Bell Atlantic employees, said they would release no details of the agreement on region-wide issues until they resolve issues affecting individual locals.

Talks on those issues were continuing yesterday.

"We feel there's no reason it should take very long to work them out, but that doesn't mean it's easy or it's all over," said CWA spokesman Jeff Miller.

The accord apparently will mean a layoff for "Larry," the bumbling, belching "outside contractor" repairman who became the central character in an unprecedented media blitz mounted by the CWA to put pressure on the company.

Bell Atlantic was the last of the seven regional Bell companies to reach an agreement with the CWA in its current round of bargaining. More than any of its peers, it pushed the union for broad concessions.

Both sides claimed to have achieved their aims yesterday. Company spokeswoman Joan Rasmussen called it "a fair and equitable settlement."

Mr. Miller said the agreement generally falls in line with the contract signed with the other regional Bells, most of which were wrapped up last August. The wage increases in those contracts ranged between 10.5 percent and 11 percent over three years, plus cash compensation.

The retroactive three-year contract will expire in August 1998.

At the local level, union officials were still wary. Charles Gerhardt, executive vice president of Baltimore's CWA Local 2100, said he wouldn't share in the jubilation until he learned the details.

"I'm reserving all judgments till later," he said.

The CWA represents about 8,000 members in Maryland, Mr. Miller said.

In place of the traditional strike weapon, the union poured nearly $7 million into a campaign that included employee demonstrations, boycott campaigns, enlistment of support from institutional stockholders and a sophisticated advertising campaign.

The CWA's ads were difficult to miss for anyone in Bell Atlantic's six-state region and the District of Columbia. They appeared in newspapers, on radio and TV and even on banners flown above crowded football stadiums.

Mr. Miller said the ads would continue to run until the final local issues are wrapped up, but would be suspended between a final agreement and a ratification vote.

Ms. Rasmussen said yesterday that the union's ad campaign had "absolutely" no effect on the outcome of the talks.

"We focused on the negotiations throughout," she said.

But CWA officials said the ad campaign helped wear down the company. They were especially proud of the humorous "Larry" ads, which called into question Bell Atlantic's commitment to high-quality service at a time when competition is creeping closer.

"Based on the feedback that we've gotten, we think that was very effective in getting to the heart of the issue," Mr. Miller said.

Jeff Keefe, a labor relations professor at Rutgers University who closely follows the telephone industry, said such an ad campaign was the last thing Bell Atlantic needs at a time when a reputation for high-quality service is its main selling point.

"Raising concerns about the unqualified contractors hits at their competitive advantage, so they've got to be concerned about that," Mr. Keefe said.

The Bell Atlantic-CWA talks were closely watched by the entire labor movement, which has found the strike weapon increasingly counterproductive in recent years.

Ray Abernathy, an AFL-CIO spokesman, said the settlement could encourage other unions to use similar tactics.

"The Bell Atlantic victory and settlement certainly proves that a 'virtual strike' or 'strike-smart' approach can certainly have a good result," he said.

Mr. Miller said the final settlement came after high-level talks involving the union's international president, Morton Bahr, and Bell Atlantic's two vice chairmen, Lawrence T. Babbio and James G. Cullen.

Mr. Miller said the final issues to be resolved were tricky matters involving employment security, the use of outside contractors and union recognition.

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